The space shuttle Endeavour made an unusual nighttime landing Wednesday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending a 16-day mission to the International Space Station highlighted by the installation of the first segment of the Japanese laboratory Kibo.
The return to Earth was delayed when clouds moved over central Florida late Wednesday afternoon, causing controllers to wave off the first landing attempt. Ground controllers then asked shuttle Commander Dominic Gorie if he would prefer to land at night through broken clouds or wait and try again today.
The approach to the landing site took Endeavour over the Pacific Ocean, crossing over the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico before heading north to Florida. As Endeavour approached the landing site, it could be seen streaking through the cloud bank, a specter of shining white that flickered in the darkness like a summer firefly.
"Welcome home," a ground controller radioed.
"It was a super rewarding mission," Gorie replied as the shuttle coasted to a stop at 7:40 p.m. CDT, its hydraulics venting like an exhausted animal after a long run.
Endeavour spent more time - 12 days - docked at the space station than any past shuttle mission. Astronauts performed a record five spacewalks to install the Japanese laboratory and to assemble a giant Canadian-built robot called Dextre, which will be used to perform routine maintenance outside the station. That will allow space station crews to avoid going into space themselves, which always carries a certain amount of risk no matter how careful the spacewalkers are.
Altogether, the mission covered 6.5 million miles and made 250 orbits of the Earth.
With the latest construction, the space station is now 70 percent complete and weighs about 600,000 pounds. Completion of the mission - the second of the year - keeps the shuttle program on its ambitious schedule to complete six missions this year, as NASA hurries to finish construction work at the space station before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
One of this year's flights, currently set for August, is a repair mission to the ailing Hubble Space Telescope.